Have you ever experienced something exceptional you’d hoped to capture and share, but you were forbidden to photograph or record it? That was the Easter celebration in the village of San Juan Chamula in the Chiapas region of Mexico.
The last photo we were allowed to take.
Unfortunately, photos and video were strictly forbidden inside the church and during the procession, so you’ll have to take our words for it.
Inside San Juan Chamula Church
Inside the church, the air was thick with incense — as in enough incense to power Christianity for the coming year. The floor was strewn with long-needled pine branches, adding to both the aroma and the heightened sense of a connection with nature. Clearly, we were in the territory of Catholicism merged with indigenous Mayan traditions that predate “the new world.”
Along the walls, statues of various saints — some doll-like, others the three-dimensional equivalent of icons in ancient cave paintings — were ensconced in decorative wooden crates and draped in local herbs and flowers as if to suggest that they were torn between heaven and earth. Others wore mirrors around their necks, some say to deflect evil spirits, others say to protect them from cameras that sap their powers.
The church in San Juan Chamula was established in 1522, only 30 years after Columbus had set sail for the new world. The unique blend of practice suggested that the members had adopted European-style Catholicism rather begrudgingly. We were awestruck by the result: animistic, indigenous, spiritual, and religious all roiled into one.
The only lurking hints of modernity: bottles of soda clutched by a few churchgoers and an LED blinking star that looked as if it belonged in a cheap casino, somewhere off-off strip. The folks running this church took a page out of the “let’s embrace ancient traditions and throw in a touch of flash while we’re at it” in selective effect in temples throughout the world.
There were no pews. Instead, a flow of squat locals plodded through the center of the church, bumping through a few far-too-tall gringos as smoke plumes curled to the ceiling. At the foot of each of the saints, a group of indigenous women and children communed with friends and relatives in prayer. They lit candles and shared bottles of Coca-Cola, their apparent elixir of choice.
Deep inside, the altar was mobbed. As far as we could tell, there was no priest, just more crowds of villagers, including women with black stone chalices stuffed with giant incense embers smoldering away. One woman waved her smoking cup in large sweeping motions. Thankfully the church was constructed mainly of stone, for her moves otherwise would surely have burned us all to the ground. In this place, the air was so thick and the oxygen so thin, divine apparitions came easy.
Heavy and ethereal, earthbound and cosmic. We stood amidst it all for several minutes, absorbing the scene with all our senses, wishing at times we’d had some sort of “blink camera” just to capture it.
But in all the activity we felt like interlopers, as if we were intruding.
Emerging into the open air and church square carried with it freedom – the freedom of oxygen and freedom to the wider world where we stood out as gringos just a little bit less. We retreated to the far end where we sat on a curb platform that traced the edge of the church courtyard.
We absorbed the early morning visual: indigenous Tzotzi men in furry woolen white capes, others in black, clusters of Tzotzi women with market day purchases bundled in tow, babies slung to their backs, and little kids chasing one another like they might just about anywhere else, bugging their mothers for ice cream money.
As the church clock approached noon, the sun cooked us and the surrounding air to baking hot. A weak honk from the ice cream cart punctuated a stillness descending. People were set to hang out on the church square for the day, it seemed.
We figured it was time to go. So we got up.
Then something stirred.
Local boys began a frantic sweeping of the sidewalk behind us. More men and boys followed behind them, laying down a blessed carpet of sorts, scattering pine needles and branches across the cleaned squares of ground at the courtyard edge.
A group of men dressed in white capes marched into the gazebo nearby. Men in black woolen capes and colorful headwear followed. They stood at attention, the sheaths of their ceremonial swords pointing out.
In a matter of minutes, more guardsmen gathered, sealing off the courtyard archway entrance. Those who were in the courtyard were in, us included. Those outside had to watch over the walls.
Audrey took out the video camera and began a slow pan. A group of men in wool coats descended. “No photos! No video!” I’m surprised they didn’t take the camera. This was serious. She put it away and apologized.
It turns out that the men in white were local law enforcement, a citizen police force.
Then crowds, saints and clouds of incense billowed forth from the church.
Seconds later, another stir. A couple of men yelled to one another, “Photo, photo!” and pointed outside the walls. A young blond woman, not exceptionally tall, but taller than anyone around, was besieged, swamped by angry men in white capes. They inspected her camera, buttons were pressed. Footage was certainly deleted.
The men in white, confident they had put an end to it all, returned to their post on the gazebo.
As three bell men atop the church began stroking the bells, men carrying brightly colored flags adorned with more saints and apostles emerged from the church. As if to animate the spirits in those flags, they bounced their staffs ever-so-slightly as they made their way to the blessed arch, right in front of us.
Colors abounded. The saints, now outside, were brighter than before. They were further draped with greens, fronds, and herbs. The colors were vibrant, anything but somber — a little like Christmas meets Mardi Gras.
The sounds, a cacophony. One part celebration, another part lamentation, it sounded like the beginning of the war. Some blew bugles, others rang bells. Others still stroked boxy wooden indigenous instruments, bits and chunks dangling. Some lit fireworks in the courtyard, while others set off what could best be described as “a cannon in a can,” noisemakers that literally shook the earth as they went off. Some observers made as much noise as possible while others remained perfectly silent. Taking our cue from the indigenous girls around us –-they were old pros at this — we plugged our ears to protect our eardrums from the deafening sounds.
As the saints approached the arch, something occurred to us: We were among the very few – if not the only – foreigners in the courtyard crowd near the blessed arch. We were certainly privileged to witness this, completely by chance, with a virtual front row seat.
We had also realized that once the procession began, we were back to being ordinary human beings once again. There was no longer any attention paid to us, all eyes were on the event, in all its mayhem.
Young men sat atop the arch and tossed bunches of flower petals on the saints, bringing the crowd to a climax. When it was all over, women and children frantically collected the blessed petals and scooped them into burlap sacks and wooden buckets. Good luck at home for a few more days at least.
Some might say, “No photo? Then it didn’t happen.”
Not from where we were standing.
Editor’s note: The text of this article was adjusted from the original. The sentence “Then crowds, saints and clouds of incense billowed forth from the church.” was moved to more accurately report the sequence of events.
Getting to San Juan Chamula: Collectivos (minivans) run frequently from near the main market in San Cristobal de las Casas to San Juan for 10 pesos ($0.80). Sunday is a particularly good today to visit because it is the day of the weekly market and we’ve heard that processions are a regular event, even when it’s not Easter. Our advice: find a place on the church square to sit on the curb, try to blend in and then wait for everything to happen around you.